• Blog
  • Living in Beijing Blogs

Slice of life: the bitter reality

James Palmer puts expat grumbles in check

Illustration Timothy McEvenue
My grandmother died recently after a short illness. She was 85, but we were all still shocked, because she was so active, living by herself until the week she went into hospital, and travelling every year. Only last year she was in Beijing, her fourth visit since the country opened up in the 1980s, when she took herself, then a sprightly 60, across the nation on hard-sleeper trains for no other reason than curiosity. It’s pleasing that some farmers’ first gawping sight of a foreigner would have been a giant, handsome Australian woman, probably asking them concernedly about their health or their children’s education.

She had a temper and an occasional tendency to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and then hit you with it; I once spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to convince her that Australian Aboriginals, for whose rights she was a long-term campaigner, had arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago, not, as she had become convinced, five million years ago.

But she was saintly in most respects. When she travelled, her finest traits were her willingness to see a person’s best side and her ability to put others before herself. If somebody stole her wallet in Egypt, she’d say: ‘Poor man, he probably needed the money more than me.’ If she got stuck in a train station in Shandong for 12 hours, she’d worry about the other passengers not being able to get home to their families. Even though for much of her life she was a single mother, working several jobs to support three children, she thought of herself as lucky compared to much of the world, and was grateful for it.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of her attitude, and how it contrasts with the spoilt, privileged whining of so many expats. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here; most of the expats I know are splendid, stout-hearted, generous people. But there’s an undercurrent of stubborn assholedom that sours the whole business.

My fiancée has a withering contempt for ‘losers from the West’ who come to China and then spend their whole time complaining about a country where they’re not only given a status they could never achieve at home, but live better than 90 percent of the population while doing a third as much work. I’m more sympathetic; a lot of people, after all, come a cropper for one reason or another, then a chance in China offers them a lifeline. If I was unemployed, divorced, alcoholic, or all three, I’d probably bear a burden of bitterness that’d carry over to my new country too. Hell, I’m a splendidly well-adjusted specimen of humanity with a job that only occasionally makes me want to repeatedly smash my head into my desk. Yet I can still rant for five minutes about the fickle nature of my apartment’s heating, even though I can literally look down from my window and see the migrant workers building the new subway station, shivering in their temporary housing.

And there’s a special brand of toxicity that crops up again and again. It’s the branding of any problem or obstacle as uniquely Chinese, the branding of ‘these people’, the constant denigration of local culture or tradition. It dances on the edge of outright racism a lot of the time, and sometimes jumps right over. One of the reasons I was so happy to get out of Korea, where I lived for a miserable year, was because I was dangerously close to that attitude myself. I was blaming everything bad in the country on ‘Korean-ness’, even regular old human laziness, incompetence and greed.

Of course, Korean culture has plenty of problems, as does Chinese culture, and any culture. But culture is a much more transitory thing than that kind of casual dismissal implies. Playing into the idea of a monolithic Chinese culture leaves the detractors in the same position as the people they’d dismiss as ‘panda-huggers’, except that the qualities they attribute are different. Bitter expats see China as eternally power-worshipping, greedy, corrupt and cowardly; soft-headed pundits or government shills see it as eternally filial, respectful and virtuous. And both pour the bitter, wonderful and fluid reality of Chinese cultures and histories into a fixed mould of their own making.